The Gay Couples Study

Principal Investigator: Collen Hoff, PhD

Project Website:

Who we are:

The Gay Couples Study seeks to identify and examine relationship dynamics in gay couples and how those dynamics affect sexual risk behaviors with primary and outside partners. Relationship dynamics include issues such as communication, intimacy, couple serostatus, sexual behaviors, sexual agreements, safety agreements, broken agreements, and HIV testing.


Study Team Members:

Sean Christian Beougher, Project Director

Deepalika Chakravarty, Statistician

Terry D. Dyer, Recruitment Coordinator

Carla Garcia, Research Assistant

Sara Finlayson, Research Assistant

Jaih McReynolds, Research Assistant

Gay Couples Study Team Members Located Offsite

Where We Have Been:

The original Gay Couples Study was a single-site study that was conducted in four phases. In Phase One, the Qualitative Phase, 39 couples participated in one face-to-face, in-depth, semi-structured qualitative interview. Once analyzed, those interviews revealed common themes, many of which were integrated into a unique and original survey instrument, the Sexual Agreement Investment Scale. This scale, coupled with other psychological and behavioral measurements, was combined into one quantitative survey and pilot-tested for validity and reliability with 200 couples during Phase Two, the Pilot Phase. In Phase Three, the Cross-Sectional Phase, 450 couples were recruited to take the quantitative survey. Using a larger pool of participants, various research questions within the quantitative survey were explored in greater detail.

In Phase Four, the Longitudinal Phase, 116 additional couples were recruited and all 566 couples were followed over a three year period to monitor how and when their relationships and sexual agreements change over time. The Longitudinal Phase included two sets of additional qualitative interviews: one that explored in greater detail many of the research questions from the quantitative survey with a randomly selected subsample of 40 couples from the Longitudinal Phase and another that explored the impact of language, culture, and race/ethnicity with an independently recruited sample of 10 Spanish-speaking Latino gay male couples (Latino Gay Couples Study).

All couples participating in the Longitudinal Phase were surveyed six times over three years. The first follow-up survey (T2) occurred one year after Baseline. The four remaining follow-up surveys (T3 – T6) occurred every six months thereafter for the following two years. All couples who participated in the qualitative interviews were interviewed three times over three years, with each follow-up interview occurring one year after Baseline. Couples who participated in the Latino Gay Couples study were interviewed two times over two years, with the follow-up interview occurring one year after Baseline.

Data collection was completed for the original Gay Couples Study in February 2010.

In 2009, we applied for and received funding to extend the Gay Couples Study for an additional five years. Our objective was to further investigate three of the most compelling findings from original Gay Couples Study: exploring the other types of agreements couples make about sex, what happens when agreements are broken, and HIV testing for gay couples. The Gay Couples Study Continuation, as it is now called, began with an exploratory Qualitative Phase, where 20 gay couples participated in one face-to-face, in-depth, semi-structured qualitative interview. Themes from these interviews helped inform revisions to a longitudinal quantitative survey.

The quantitative survey was launched in 2010, where 500 gay couples were surveyed five times over approximately three years.

Why We Are Doing This Research:

Previous research shows that gay and bisexual men in relationships engage in substantially higher rates of unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) with their primary partners than do single men with their casual partners. Additionally, studies differentiating relationships by partner serostatus have found that men with seroconcordant partners report significantly higher rates of UAI than men with serodiscordant partners. Although a desire for more intimacy in the relationship may contribute to couples engaging in UAI with each other, serostatus differences, in addition to the couple’s sexual agreements, present new questions and challenges for HIV prevention research.

With high rates of seroconversion among gay male couples, and primary partners an often unrecognized and under-studied source of new HIV infections, studying gay couples is an important next step in HIV research and prevention.

What We Have Discovered So Far:

Initial findings revealed during the Qualitative Phase include the motivations for developing and maintaining sexual agreements, such as to support stronger, healthier, and more satisfying relationships and non-heteronormative identities; to emphasize trust, safety, love, and commitment; and, to a lesser extent, to avoid HIV and STD infection.

Agreements about whether or not to allow sex with outside partners covered a wide range of types, including monogamous arrangements as well as those that permitted sex with outside partners. For those couples who allowed sex with outside partners, most placed rules or conditions limiting when, where, how often, and with whom outside sex was permitted. How couples handled breaks in their agreements varied, depending on what condition was broken, whether it was disclosed, and the partner’s reaction. In general, disclosure benefited the relationship by giving couples the opportunity to discuss their needs and expectations and by allowing an opportunity for increased communication about and renegotiation of the agreement, if necessary.

Analysis of data from the Latino Gay Couples Study revealed participants engaging in four behaviors that may actively reduce their HIV risk: approaching sexual agreements from a practical standpoint, maintaining a high literacy around HIV, having exposure to social support groups for Latino gay men and finding support in their relationship with another Latino gay man.

Data collection for this study is complete but analysis of quantitative and qualitative data is ongoing and several manuscripts are published currently in production. Please contact the Principal Investigator for more information.


This study is made possible by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, MH 75598, MH 65141, and MH 075598.